We’ve seen systems with Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) before, but no vendor has been sassy enough to break from the de rigueur SATA VelociRaptor or SSD drives in favor of the tech—until now.
Of course, this is Polywell’s M.O.—not content to do things like any other system vendor, Polywell usually tucks in a curve ball to brush you off home plate when you don’t expect it. Sometimes Polywell’s pitch doesn’t work (think really nice $5,000 gaming rig with an $8 keyboard and mouse), but time we were intrigued with its 300 gigabytes of RAID 0, 15,000rpm, connected using SAS. The onboard SAS support in the Asus P6T Deluxe mobo achieved sequential read speeds of about 192MB/s with 6.8ms access times—that’s purty durn good considering that our VelociRaptor-equipped systems see roughly 166MB/s reads with about 7+ms access times.
Elsewhere, Polywell plays it safe and sane: an Intel Core i7 clocked up to 3.66GHz on air and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 295 card along with 6GB of DDR3 at 1,450MHz and an LG Blu-ray drive stuffed into an Antec 900 case make it a well-rounded rig—albeit a bit bland.
Sometimes, you just have to keep things real. Last year, our Dream Machine was a paean to excess, a chrome-plated $17,000 wünder-rig. While we’re still quite fond of that machine, this year we decided to take a different tack and see if we could build a more reasonably priced, but still lust-worthy Dream Machine. Well, actually, we built three of them. While the combined cost of these three machines is about half the price of last year’s rig, we packed a lot of awesome into our relatively tight budgets. The lesson is simple: Dream Machine isn’t about spending a ludicrous amount of cash on a PC, it’s about getting the best rig you can for the money you spend. I think you’ll agree that these three machines pack a ton of power and are all great values.
Without further ado, we give you this year’s crop of Dream Machines.
Can a PC be scary? Hewlett-Packard’s Firebird is. Why? The Firebird could very well offer a glimpse of where enthusiast computing is headed—and it’s not a future we’re particularly looking forward to.
The Firebird looks like a lap poodle version of HP’s Blackbird 002, but the similarities are only skin deep. While the Blackbird 002 was a traditional meat-and-potatoes performance PC with industry-standard parts, tons of slots, and the power consumption to match, the Firebird is none of those things. It’s silent instead of loud, diminutive instead of imposing, and offers minimal upgrade options.
You know when a little person shows up in a Ben Stiller movie he’s gonna whoop some ass. Sometimes that’s not just a comedy film cliché. Take, for example, Falcon Northwest’s size-challenged Fragbox II.
You’d think this Halfling PC would have a hard time competing with full-tilt, big-ass gaming rigs, but Falcon brings its A-game to the table by managing to stuff an overclocked Core i7 into the wee chassis.
This is the third Fragbox II we’ve seen in recent years and it’s also clearly the fastest. With its overclocked 2.93GHz Core i7-940, 6GB of DDR3/1066, Lite On Blu-ray burner, Seagate 1.5TB Barracuda, and a pair of GeForce GTX 285 cards in SLI, this PC is hardly wanting.
All-in-one PCs like Dell’s XPS One 24 aren’t the most powerful computers on the market and they know it. Like thin-and-light notebooks, they trade brute power for a thin, stylish profile and quiet operation—and we’re absolutely fine with that. We’d never give up our benchmark-crushing uber rigs for an all-in-one, but a good one can be a terrific second PC for the kitchen, living room, or bedroom.
Don’t take that to mean the XPS One 24 is wimpy, though. It’s far more powerful than the HP TouchSmart we reviewed in the Holiday 2008 issue (you’ll find our review at http://tinyurl.com/dxcxkf), thanks to a foundation based on Intel’s 2.33GHz Core 2 Quad Q8200 CPU, a respectable mobile GPU (Nvidia’s GeForce 9600M GT with a 512MB frame buffer), and a desktop 750GB hard drive. The trade-off for that power is heat and noise: The components in Dell’s machine produce more heat than the parts HP chose, and Dell compounded its thermal issues by sticking the power supply inside the chassis (HP uses an external brick). So, while the TouchSmart is all but silent, the cooling fan in the XPS One 24 emits a slightly annoying whine.
Gateway’s trademark cow is long dead, but that doesn’t mean the company can’t be its quirky old self—something the FX6800 gaming rig illustrates perfectly. With its itsy-bitsy, microATX board, “I don’t care about appearances” wiring, and moderate price, you’d think the box would be easily outclassed by the custom, hand-built PCs we see every month. Well, think again.
The FX6800’s secret is under the hood. While the majority of the machines we’ve tested lately are still running overclocked Core 2 Extreme CPUs, Gateway reached for the midrange Core i7-940. The top-end CPU may be the speed king, but we seriously wondered if a stock-clocked, 2.93GHz Core i7-940 could even hang with those 4GHz Core 2 Extreme rigs.
We’ve never—ever—seen a PC like Hardcore Computer’s Reactor. Who the hell, after all, would dunk a CPU, GPUs, SSDs, a proprietary motherboard, and a power supply in non-conductive oil? We’ve seen submerged PC projects since as early as 1998, but they’ve always looked like a PC that ran Titanic-style into an iceberg, with half the components sinking to the bottom of the tank.
The Reactor, however, feels solid. It’s made of fabricated heavy-duty aluminum and is so stunningly gorgeous that it could easily be dropped onto a movie set as a nuclear-powered PC from 2112.
Heck, there are even some hardware exclusives here. The Reactor is the first machine to have a full, real EAX5-capable X-Fi chip in it. And in another first, Hardcore somehow managed to use three of Samsung’s new 256GB SSD drives—that’s 768GB of fast solid state storage, kiddies. In graphics, we didn’t get Nvidia’s latest GTX 295s, but Hardcore does manage to stuff in three GTX 280 cards. All this was fitted to the custom nForce 790i SLI board with Intel’s pre-viously top-of-the-line 3.2GHz Core 2 Extreme Edition at 4GHz. And, of course, almost all of it was sunk in heat-conductive oil.
Uberclok takes a mighty gamble with its Fury PC. Instead of burying Intel’s hot, new Core i7 in the heart of its machine, Überclok reaches for something that’s beginning to show its age: Intel’s midrange Core 2 Quad Q9650. Why didn’t the company go with, say, an Intel Core i7 940, which costs the same as the Q9650? We’re not entirely sure, but Überclok makes the most of its choice.
Despite its age, the chip is no slouch. At its stock 3GHz speed, this quad core would make most people happy, but the new E0-step core used in this chip series is a heckuva overclocker. In fact, Überclok ubers the chip a full gigahertz using simple air cooling, which is quite a feat—although the execution isn’t flawless. The machine completed all of our benchmarks without a hitch, but a Prime95 stress test blue-screened the box within a few minutes. A quick call to Überclok provided the solution we expected to hear: Give her more voltage. Three-tenths of a volt later, the Fury was stable in our stress test.
The Velocity Micro Raptor Z90 is the first production rig we’ve tested that boasts Intel’s new Core i7 microarchitecture—and it really cooks. Velocity cranked the 3.2GHz clock speed on Intel’s quad-core Hyper-Threaded Core i7-965 Extreme Edition to 3.6GHz with nary a hiccup, and cooled the dang thing with air. The machine also features 6GB of DDR3/1600 and dual 512MB Radeon HD 4870s.
HP’s TouchSmart line of all-in-one desktop computers has undergone quite a transformation since we examined the very first model, the IQ770, nearly two years ago. Not only is every change for the better, but HP has managed to slash prices by several hundred dollars.